By Dan Willging in Crossroads and Zyde-Zine
Lake Charles LA: It's not your typical Cajun music, but as their debut La Musique Unique des Acadiens shows, Lake Charles' Les Amies Louisianaises is not your typical group. Not only are they a rarity by being a women's quartet singing Cajun music, they also do four-part harmonies that's atypical of the genre. Historically, vocal harmonies in Cajun music have been few. The Balfa Brothers sang two-part harmonies; Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys are known for their three-part singing.
The group of the three Aguillards and one Thibodeaux formed in 1987 from their involvement in a church choir. Shortly thereafter, they began performing at civic and church functions throughout the parish. In 1989, they were singing popular tunes at a community banquet when fortune would alter their direction. For the finale, the group performed the Cajun waltz, "J'ai Passe Devant Ta Porte." The first time they had ever sung publicly in French turned out to be the surprise hit of the evening. "The people were really excited," said Jeanette Aguillard. "That's when we realized we had something."
The Aguillard-Thibodeaux group continued to integrate French material into their repertoire. By 1994, they had become acquainted with Jennings attorney David Marcantel and were his radio choir for a French mass aired on station KJEF. Duly impressed, Marcantel and engineer John Smith offered their assistance should the group decide to record. Recognizing an opportunity when they saw one, Les Amies felt the time was right.
The resulting project, La Musique Unique des Acadiens, was recorded at Max-Trax studios in Crowley, Louisiana, and was produced by Marcantel and Smith. Besides co-producing, Smith handled the arranging and played keyboards, drums and bass. At times, it retains a Cajun feel, à la four-part harmonies, with guest accordionists Steve Riley and Lee Benoit. Some lyrics, like "Jolie Blonde," were modified to tell the story from a woman's point of view. In other places, the arrangements achieve a more modern sensibility on par with those tracked in Nashville. Yet, the common denominator is the gorgeous, angelic blending of voices belonging to Jeanette, Sheila, Janet Aguillard (no relation) and Donna Thibodeaux. In creating their four-part artistry, the four all sing within an octave. Janet sings melody; Jeanette does alto; Sheila sings soprano, and Donna handles the middle harmonies.
That angelic blending of harmonies is definitely the record's buzz, especially on the timeless spiritual "Amazing Grace," titled as "La Grâce du Ciel." "I get requests for that every week," says WSLA's Kateri Yagari of New Orleans. In fact, the song has gotten Les Amies so much recognition, many call them the "Amazing Grace Girls."
Which is a good thing, because listeners seeking out the first ever Cajun French version of "Amazing Grace" will find a few close-to-home cultural gems. "La Marche des Mariés" is a trad piece often heard at Cajun weddings, usually around the time the bride turns from white to green during a money dance. Additionally, an original of Jeanette's describes a family gathering at Christmas. "La Valse Cadienne de Noël" advises to get your accordion, tune your guitar, dance with the prettiest one to the beautiful Christmas waltz. "Because that's what we do down here," Jeanette reminds me.
-- Dan Willging (dwillgingmho.net)